In these last days before Christmas and I feel drawn to talk about the missing elephant in the room - what seems to be absent right now in so many places - Joy! Thanks to the very unwelcome and much overstayed guest of Covid-19, we lack a lot of what we traditionally feel joy about this time of year, right?
These past months have included forced separation, income loss, sanity loss (homeschooling anyone?) many tears, fears and much death. In one way or another we have each been personally, achingly affected by it. There does not seem to be very much to be happy about or sing about, certainly not merry songs of Christmas jubilee. That is why a distinction of terms is so important right now - especially now: Merry, happy and joy are vastly different things.
We are all familiar with the song: “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”. I actually really like that song and when it comes on the radio I hum along with it. But when I stop and think on the song’s title: “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” it just seems so insignificant compared to what this upcoming day represents and offers – true, lasting Joy for the entire world!
Firstly, there is nothing little about what happened that first Christmas: God, Creator of all, decided to leave His kingdom of glory and light and perfection to enter our world of dust, sickness, murder, and disgusting odors. Eww. He went from wealth and joy beyond measure to incredible poverty, rejection, and pain for the sole reason of restoring relationship of us with Him. This, friends, is a very BIG deal! The words “little” and “Christmas” do not belong in the same stratosphere, let alone the same sentence. And, "merry" and "happy" do not even come close to how this event should make us feel!
Now, please do not get me wrong, I am not dissing on the twin sisters of Merry and Happy. They are nice and all, and they are actually pretty fun to hang out with sometimes. To be sure, I am happy when I get my Starbucks peppermint mocha and get really merry when I get to go shopping at Home Goods for yet another throw pillow I truly do not need and do not have room for. I may have a problem...
Joy, though, is so much deeper and more profound than these temporary, fleeting things. Happy feelings are born when circumstances go our way and we approve of the outcomes. Joy is from where our souls are birthed, where God resides and invites us to abide too. Joy is not rooted in shallow, rocky and crumbling ground, but in the deep, rich and fertile soil of eternal things.
In my recent study of Scripture surrounding Christ's incarnation, I was once again pulled over in awe about how each line in the Bible is perfectly woven together. Jesus’ birth was so intricately detailed to point to Him as the long-awaited Messiah it is astonishing. The angel's announcement to the shepherds in the sheep fields was written for us all:
"And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:12, ESV)
As prophesied, Christ was born in the city of David, in an area of Bethlehem they called the “Tower of the Flock” In the book of the prophet Micah it states “And you, O tower of the flock, the stronghold of the daughter of Zion, unto you it shall come, even the dominion of your former kingdom shall return to the daughter of Jerusalem." (v. 4:8) Wow! God’s dominion returned to Jerusalem with the Messiah’s birth. This special area of Bethlehem is where the consecrated, sacrificial Passover lambs were bred, born and inspected by the shepherd priests.
Only blemish-free lambs were acceptable and they did a fine-tooth comb search of each of these baby lambs using swaddling cloth! These cloths were made of bright white linen and were put up against the newborn lambs to inspect them for blemishes and determine their suitability to be used as the temple sacrifice. Amazing right?! We read of Jesus being born, wrapped in swaddling cloth and laid in a manger. Our Savior-Lamb of God.
The specifically chosen shepherds to whom the angel announced Christ's arrival knew just where to look; they knew of the prophet Micah’s words about where the Messiah would be born and the sign from the angel was like a flaming arrow that led them straight there – the only place where a manger and swaddling cloth would be used in tandem - at the “Tower of the Flock” sheep fields, as prophesied hundreds of years before!
Later, the book of John, chapter 2 tells of Jesus' first recorded miracle at the wedding in Cana. It is not a coincidence that it includes wine and a wedding. Nothing God does is happenstance. Wine is a symbol of and represents – you guessed it – Joy! to the Jewish people. Picture the scene: Christ, Joy-incarnate walks through the door at the wedding feast. The eternal Bridegroom for us all is now at the union-celebration of God and mankind once again. The symbolism is deep.
Christ instructs the servants to fill the large containers with water. We read an important and very intentionally included detail next: “So they filled the jars to the top”. Going back to our comparison to joy and happy now, the water symbolizes “happy”; it is fine as a drink to quench thirst but does not even come close to suiting the momentous occasion at hand – God’s new agreement, His unbreakable marriage with us had just begun! Jesus turns this basic beverage form into the one of deep, incredible joy!
Jesus’ outward ministry beginning at a wedding is absolutely perfect – weddings represent a life-long love union. He came offering to each of us eternal joining with God – talk about the ultimate wedding gift! His concerned mother Mary famously tells Him “They have no wine”, remember, wine represents joy, so in other words she is telling Him, “they have no joy”. In her human and compassionate way, she is thinking of saving the host from embarrassment, but of course, Jesus was there to save them from so much more, offering a joy that never runs out.
Friends, we get the very same offer! Another wedding feast is now being prepared, our Bridegroom awaits us and we are each personally invited! The wedding of the Lamb is a promise for believers – Jesus will not be changing water into wine this time, no need. He is all that is required for joy. Hallelujah!
We read of this promise in Revelation 19: 7-8:
"Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready. Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear.”
Did you catch that wedding dress material? “Fine linen, bright and clean”. Swaddling clothes were made from the very same cloth. We will be adorned in the same type of material as our Savior at His birth!
The joy offering that came that first Christmas – God Himself has never left us. We are the ones who forget and leave Him all too often, at least I know I do. We cannot let the endless shopping, the lack of family around us, and Covid’s joy-sucking ways to remove what really matters. We can have joy in all of it because Christ came and made it possible. Because Christ offers unspeakable joy and peace, no matter our earthbound circumstances.
Let’s not get so entangled with the pressures and stresses and even (I say this with deep tenderness) in the sorrows of this past year that we forget the wonder of this season. A friend who visited this blog recently mentioned to me that Ruth Graham-Lotz called it “the barren-ness of busy-ness”. The world has changed the wine of Christmas into bland, lukewarm water. We cannot allow ourselves to do the same. This Christmas let us focus on the truth, the real, the important, not the barren womb of the world, but the blessed one of Mary that very first Christmas morning.
Rest in the assurance of who He is and why He came - to offer abundant life here and into eternity...Oh the Joy!
Question: How will you drink in deep-held joy today?